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CINCINNATI (AP) _ Kroger Co., the nation's largest supermarket operator, said Tuesday its first-quarter earnings climbed from a year ago, matching Wall Street expectations.

Kroger earned $303.4 million, or 36 cents a share, in the quarter ended May 26, up from $100.1 million, or 12 cents share, a year ago. Sales increased 5 percent to $15.1 billion from last year's $14.3 billion.

But excluding one-time expenses and costs stemming from Kroger's 1999 merger with the Fred Meyer Inc. retail grocer, Kroger earned $313.5 million, or 38 cents a share, in the latest period, up from $270.6 million, or 32 cents a share, a year ago.

The latest results matched the 38 cents a share that analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial/First Call expected from Kroger before one-time items.

In midday trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Kroger shares were up 44 cents at $25.35.

Kroger management said it is standing by its forecast of achieving annual earnings per share increases of 16 percent to 18 percent through fiscal 2002, which ends Feb. 1, 2003. Beyond that, Kroger expects to increase its earnings per share by 15 percent annually, excluding costs of any major acquisitions, said Joseph Pichler, Kroger's chairman and chief executive officer.

The Cincinnati-based company operates 2,380 supermarkets and multi-department stores in 32 states under names including Kroger, Fred Meyer, Ralphs, Smith's, King Soopers, Dillon, Fry's, City Market, Food 4 Less and Quality Food Centers.

Kroger also operates 788 convenience stores, 407 jewelry stores and 41 food processing plants.

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On the Net.

Kroger site: http://www.kroger.com